Handling Conflict – Part 3 – Skills

Posted on November 13, 2019


Here’s the script from the third College of Marriage session on handling conflict.

Welcome to the College of Marriage, session 6.  This is the third of our sessions that are specifically about handling conflict.

Today we are going to work on skills for handling conflict.  Much of this comes from the research by John & Julie Gottman.  Through observing couples and tracking them over time, they have been able to identify what the masters of relationship do and what the disasters do.  The Gottman’s, by watching a short interaction between a couple, can predict with over 90% accuracy whether that couple will stay together.  So when we talk about the masters of relationship, we are talking about those things that happy, satisfied couples seem to do naturally.  When we talk about the disasters, we are looking at those relationships that are heading for the cliff.  If you do some of the things that the disasters do, don’t panic.  The reason we are here is so that you can learn and make changes where you need to.  If I didn’t believe that people were capable of making positive changes, I would be in a different line of work.

There is a lot of information here and a short time in which to give it to, so we are really going to need to be efficient with our time today.

Four Horsemen.  The research has identified four patterns of interaction that are so damaging to the relationship that they have been dubbed the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  They are

  • Criticism – In a marriage, you have to be able to complain to each other. When I have moved from complaint to criticism is when I start talking about what is wrong with you.  Criticism is when instead of talking about the problem, I talk about what is wrong with you.  If I say you are irresponsible or inconsiderate, I have moved into criticism.  If I say, “you always…” or “you never…,” it is probably criticism.
  • Contempt – Contempt is the most damaging and sometimes the most subtle. Contempt can be name calling.  But it can also be sarcasm.  It can be rolling your eyes when your partner is talking (communicating, this is so stupid I can’t believe I have to listen to this).  Contempt can be any tone of voice in which “…,you idiot” would fit neatly on the end of what I just said.  This is most damaging because it attacks your partner’s sense of self.  The antithesis of feeling loved and valued is feeling like your partner thinks you are such an idiot that (s)he can hardly stand to have you around.
  • Defensiveness – Defensiveness and criticism tend to be best friends, or at least they spend a lot of time together. Defensiveness happens when your partner brings you a complaint and you start saying essentially “you’ve got it all wrong” or “you would have too if…”  The problem is that your partner is wanting you to see and care about what is happening for him/her.  If you become defensive, you just made it all about you.  This leaves both of you feeling alone and disconnected.
  • Stonewalling – Last week, we talked about withdrawers. Stonewalling is most often done by withdrawers.  Stonewalling is when you quit responding to your partner.  It may involve just not answering or leaving.  Either way, your partner is going to feel abandoned.  Over time, this leads to despair and then detachment.

We will look at some antidotes to these a little further on in this lesson.

For now, let’s look at the conflict blueprint created by the Gottman’s based upon their research in how the masters of relationships resolve conflict.  The conflict blueprint has 4 steps.  Step 1: Listening and Validating.  Step 2: Compromise and problem solving.  Step 3: Dreams within conflict.  And step 4: The aftermath of a regrettable incident.  Throughout this conflict blueprint, your position should be to “Argue with me like I am someone you love.”

Step 1: Listening and Validating.  When we are in conflict and you are the one speaking, you want to present your position without blaming your partner.  The idea of “I” statements has become almost cliché, but there is power in talking about what it feels like to be you instead of talking about what is wrong with your mate.  An “I” statement is “I felt really hurt when you said blank.”  It is not an “I” statement if you say, “I think you are being a jerk.”  As you are talking about your experience, you want to also state your positive need.  What is it you would like from your partner?

Now onto the listener….In most conversations it is pretty common that each participant just shares their position in their turn.  When you are having a conversation with your partner about something that is a point of conflict, it is important to have an interim step in between your partner sharing his or her position and your response.  Before you share your position, you want to make sure that you understand your partner’s experience, and (this is important)…………………..that your partner believes that you understood.  To do this, you need to postpone your own agenda for a moment.  Hear and repeat back your partner’s perspective and needs.  Name your partner’s emotional experience.  If you get this wrong, it is not a problem.  Your partner will correct you.  If you say, “that made you sad” and your partner says, “No, I was hurt.”  That’s fine.  The mission is to get to a place where you can sincerely say, “It makes sense that you feel that way.”  If it doesn’t make sense, ask questions to try to understand.  After all, your mate isn’t stupid.  Look at who they married.  As you ask questions, tone of voice will matter.  If your tone is annoyed or condescending, the message isn’t, “I want to understand,” but that “This is ridiculous.”  Remember, the mission is understanding.

After you have come to a place where you get it and your partner feels that you got it, now it is time for the speaker and listener to trade roles.  You were postponing your agenda, not abandoning it.

Step 2 is The Art of Compromise.  Usually when we are stuck in a disagreement, we have a core need that is mission critical for us.  This is an area of inflexibility.  The much larger area tends to be an area of flexibility.  As long as my core need gets met, I can be flexible on many other points.  As you are trying to work toward compromise, you want to be able to identify your own core need and communicate that to your partner along with why it is important to you.  Be willing to bend on areas of flexibility.

Step 3 is Dreams within conflict.  The Gottman’s research has found that 69% of the things couples argue about are not solvable problems.  There are differences in personality, differences in values, differences in priorities.  Consequently, the things you argue about as newlyweds are the things you are arguing about 25 years later.  One example is differences in our relationship with money.  For one partner, money may be about security.  This partner wants to be frugal and save as much as possible.  For the other partner, money might be about enjoying life.  This partner does not want to be excessively frugal for the future at the expense of not enjoying life now.  This difference is not going to go away.  Nor is it that one partner is right and the other is wrong.

On gridlocked issues, what separates the masters of relationship from the disasters is the way they dialogue around these issues.  Dreams within conflict is about understanding the dream behind your partner’s position on the issue.  We want to get to understanding and acceptance of the personality differences.  Ask questions until you understand what is behind your partner’s position.  This is unlikely to be a one-time conversation.  It will be an ongoing dialogue.

Finally, Step 4 is about the Aftermath of a Regrettable incident.  After there has been a blow-up, we want to be able to go back and process the incident together without getting back into it.  There are a couple of skills that can be really helpful in going through this process.  One is the two realities.  The other is what I call the post-mortem. Let’s start with

The Two realities.  Have you ever watched a TV show or movie in which the same events are shown from the point of view of the various characters?  The movie Vantage Point comes to mind for me.  The events look different depending upon whose view you have to what happened.

Whenever something happens between the two of you, there will be two realities.  There is your reality and your partner’s reality.  The mission here is not to determine what really happened.  You won’t be able to.  The goal is to walk around in your partner’s experience.  There is always a context in which your partner’s reaction makes complete sense.  If what your partner says to you sounds like “2+2=7,” you want to find out how he or she got there.  After all, your partner is not stupid.  Look who they chose for a mate.  Once you understand how your partner saw it, you also want to understand what that was like.

A common objection here is that it feels like I have to acknowledge that my partner’s reality is what really happened.  You can look at it from your partner’s view point without abandoning your own reality.  If your spouse says, “You said the dinner was terrible.  You don’t appreciate anything I do.”  And you are thinking, I don’t think I said anything remotely like that.  You can first ask some clarifying questions to try to understand where your partner is coming from.  If you are still baffled, you can go with something like, “You understood me to say, ‘I hated the dinner.’ It makes sense that you would have been hurt by that.”  Now, hopefully, you have created enough safety and space to say, “Can I tell you what I thought I said?”

Couples exercise:  Let’s try this out.  Think of a situation where you two experienced it differently.  Take turns trying to see if from your partner’s vantage point and understanding what that was like.


This is departing from the Gottman’s and getting into my own observations.

Empathy.  I have brought this up in prior sessions, and I return to it now again.  Empathy is the most powerful tool we have in relationship.  For empathy to be effective it requires 3 components:

  1. I get what it is like to be you.
  2. I care what it is like to be you.
  3. You have an experience that #1 and #2 are true.

As with the 2 realities, I want to get to a place where I understand what it is like to be you.  I also need to care what that is like for you.  Then I need you to feel like I get it and I care.  If you don’t think I care, we missed each other.

“I Understand.”  We want to communicate understanding.  The words “I understand” should ostensibly be effective for this.  Unfortunately, when you say them, your partner will often tell you that you don’t.  The way you communicate that you understand is by reflecting what you think your partner experienced.  “You were really hurt by that…” or “That must have made you feel abandoned” will be more effective than “I understand.”

Let’s talk about 8 tracks and Pressure Cookers.  I don’t know if those of you watching this are old enough to remember 8-track tapes?  8-tracks had a tape on an infinite loop.  They would keep playing the same album over and over again.  There was never a need to rewind or start over.  The tape would just keep running through the loop.

Sometimes couples get stuck in an argument that seems to be on repeat.  After a while, we have said the same words to each other enough times that we know each other’s lines.  Here is my assertion, when your partner is repeating the same lines, there is a part your partner feels you didn’t get.  Usually this is the emotional experience or what it meant to your partner.  If this happens, you can always ask, “What is the piece you feel like I didn’t get?”  Tone of voice is really important here.  If you approach this from genuinely wanting to understand, you are likely to receive a favorable response.  If your tone sounds condescending, your partner will probably escalate.

When I was in high school and college, I used to work at Taco Bell.  Back in those days, we got raw pinto beans in the store and cooked them in big pressure cookers with thumb screws around the top.  When the beans were done, you couldn’t just open the lid, there was pressure in that pot.  You first had to use the release valve to reduce the pressure before you could take action.

When your partner is having an emotional experience, you can’t go into Mr. Spock mode and try to just apply logic.  You first need to let the pressure out of that pot.  The pressure is your partner’s emotional experience.  The release valve is empathy.  As we discussed, you want to reflect your partner’s experience so that he or she feels like you get it and you care.  After that, you can try to move to solution.  If your partner heats back up, go back to your empathy skills and repeat the process.

Winning the Argument.  As we are working on these skills, I would like to take a brief digression into how we define winning the argument.  What does it mean to win the argument?  In our household, we have always enjoyed board games.  In really broad terms, board games come in two varieties. One variety consists of competitive games in which you play against the other players.  There are winners and losers.  The object of the game is to fair better than the other players.  The other variety is made up of cooperative games.  In cooperative games, all of the players are working together against the game.  We all win together or we all lose together.  I would submit that marriage is a cooperative game.  We should play it as a cooperative game.  When you are in an argument together the mission is for the couple to win together.  We are trying to arrive at what is best for us without either partner having to abandon their core needs to get there.

We win the argument when we are able to resolve the issue without any damage being done to our relationship.  If both partners feel heard, feel that they have influence, their opinion was valued, the solution we came up with was good for the team, we won.

The Postmortem.  The best time to train is in times of non-conflict.  When you have a fight once things have cooled down, you want to be able to do the post-mortem.  The purpose is together to figure out what happened.  What was it like to be you when we were in the middle of the argument?  What made this so big for you?  Many couples are afraid to do this.  And that makes perfect sense.  Why would I risk a time when we are getting along to talk about something that was painful?  The answer is for next time and the time after that.  We want to understand what happened so that we can not end up there again.  Our hope for you is to get to a place where there is no topic that you two can’t have a reasonable discussion about.

The Antidotes.  Let’s loop back around to where we started, and talk about antidotes to the four horsemen.  With all of these, empathy will play a part.

  • Criticism – the antidote here is a soft start-up. Approach your partner gently when you have a complaint.  Talk about the issue and your feelings rather than what is wrong with your partner.  If your partner becomes reactive, acknowledged that it seemed like your partner felt criticized and try again.
  • Contempt – Empathy, empathy, empathy. If you tend to be sarcastic, start training yourself away from that.  There is a fine line between facetiousness and sarcasm.  Avoid any name calling.  Work on building a culture of appreciation by regularly affirming your partner.  As we discussed in an earlier session, self-talk is important here.  How you talk to yourself about your partner matters.  When you argue, argue with me like I am someone that you love.
  • Empathy, again.  Try to understand where your partner is coming from.  If there is something you need to own, then do it.  Let me offer another tool here.  There is a difference between being defensive and saying “I’m feeling defensive right now.”  If I say “I’m feeling defensive as you are saying that,” I have just shared a feeling.  That’s intimacy.  If I start telling my partner how they got it wrong or justifying my position, that’s defensiveness.
  • There is a difference between stonewalling and time-out.  Time-out can be an effective alternative to stonewalling.  Time out is, “I am feeling really flooded right now and need some time to calm down.  If we can take a break, I will come back and finish this conversation with you.”  Two things about time-out.  1) Sometime when you are not in conflict, you need to agree that either of you can call time out if they need to.  2) You need to come back and finish the conversation.  It will be really hard for your partner to let you call time out when he or she wants to connect.  You need to honor that by sticking to your word.

Systems and Homeostasis.  So you tried some of this and it didn’t work.  It must have been bad advice or your partner is just extraordinarily difficult, right?  No.  Marriages are systems.  Systems try to maintain homeostasis.  When you first try to make a change in the dance, it is a shock to the system.  The system is going to try to push you back into the old pattern.  It takes perseverance to make a change.

Blame Scott.  If you try this and it doesn’t go well, I always tell clients you can play the blame Scott card.  If you try something and your partner reacts badly, you can say, “I was trying to do what Scott suggested.  He doesn’t know everything.  How could I have done that better?  What did you need from me?”

5 Step Boundary Clarifier.  The boundary clarifier was created by Vickie Tidwell-Palmer as a tool for partners of sex addicts to be more effective in establishing boundaries.  I find it has applicability to any marriage and employs several effective tools.  Pull that tool out of your package, and let’s walk through the five steps.

Step 1. Describe your reality.  This is a useful skill in any relationship.  It has 3 components

  1. The first is the Data: what did you see and hear?
  2. The second is your Thoughts: what is the story you told yourself about this data? How did you make sense of it?
  3. The third is your Emotional experience: What was the feeling that came up for you?

Turn to the next page for step 2.

Step 2.  The future you want to create.  What is the outcome you want?  Do you want more closeness, safety?  Are you trying to build more trust? What would that look like?

Flip over to step 3.

Step 3.  Is evaluating your power situation.  What do you need to create that desired future?  There are four possibilities here.

One, I have the power to create it myself.

Two, I have the power to create it, but I need some help.

Three, I need to make a request.  This is the most common situation.

Four, I am powerless.  There is nothing I can do to create the desired future.

Let’s go to step 4.

Step 4 involves taking action.  The action you take depends upon the power you identified in step 3.

  1. If I have the power, what steps do I need to take?
  2. If I need help, what resources do I need? Who do I need to ask for help?
  3. Making a request. This is the most common result.  You want to make a request of your partner.  “Would you be willing to blank? (whatever it is that you are requesting)” Recognize that in response to your request, your partner may say, “yes,” “no,” or negotiate.  This is okay.
  4. There may be some futures that are not going to be possible for you. Perhaps taking no action is the best action.

Finally, let’s go to step 5.

Step 5 is Evaluating your results.  If what you wanted to happen, happened, then great.  Problem solved.  If the result you wanted didn’t happen, it isn’t that boundaries don’t work.  You need to go back through the process and clarify what happened.  You also will want to evaluate how big of an issue this is for you.  Some boundary violations may be 2 on a scale of 10.  The response would be different than the issue that is 9-10 on that scale.

Finally, let me give you my best tricks for marital therapy.  When a couple comes in for help with their relationship, I always tell them in our first session together that my job is to work my way out of a job with them.  When you can do for yourselves what I do for you in therapy, you don’t need me anymore.  That is the goal and how it should be.

There is an extent to which in therapy I am helping you to have the conversation you haven’t been able to have yourselves.  I use a technique called doubling that was developed by Dan Wile as an essential part of Collaborative Couple Therapy.  This involves the therapist speaking for each of the partners in turn.  I get the first partner’s prospective, and I speak on behalf of that first partner to the second partner.  I check back with the first partner to make sure I got it right and nothing was incorrect or left out about their experience.  Then I go process with the second partner what they just heard.  This has generally landed on the second partner substantially differently than when the first partner was saying it.

So why was it received differently?  Here’s what I did.  The first thing was I softened the tone from angry to friendly and from distant to engaged.  I acknowledge the other partner’s point.  Essentially the position now is that neither of us is entirely right or wrong.  Then I remove the criticism.  I don’t talk about what is wrong with you, but what it is like for me.  Then I bring out the unvoiced feelings, wishes, fears, and needs.

If you are trying these techniques and it is landing badly, as we previously discussed, it could be the system trying to maintain homeostasis or it could be some aspect of the above that is missing.  The cooperative tone, the acknowledgement of your partner’s point, the avoidance of criticism, and the expression of the core needs are all important aspects to make the conflict cooperative.

This was a long one with a lot of information.  But we’re coming down to the end.

For Homework this week:  Test out the boundary clarifier.  In particular practice making a request.  See if this helps derail escalating conflict and helps you feel heard.

That is going to wrap us up for session 6.  Good luck using your tools.  See you for the next session when we will discuss forgiveness and healing emotional wounds.